Donkey Kong Arcade CabinetFor me, my first video game job was the best job ever. I was Nintendo of America’s original game master (and don’t let anyone tell you different). This is the true story of how it came to be.

In the summer of 1982 the Spot Tavern in Renton, WA was a popular watering hole. After a softball game it was a local’s place for beer, pizza, pool and yes, arcade video games. On the back wall was one of my favorite new games, Donkey Kong.

I loved it’s quirky game play and 8-bit audio as “Jumpman” (later to be named Mario), jumped and maneuvered his way. It’s action and humor riveted me like no other game. Unlike my other favorites of the time – Asteroids and Battlezone, Donkey Kong featured characters and a make-shift story of boy saves girl. When playing, I was focused like a laser. My heart raced when danger lurked or time was about to expire.

“How Do You Know To Do That?”

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man with a mustache watching me play. Unlike others in the tavern he was impeccably dressed with a starched white shirt and tie. “Hey, you’re pretty good” he said. “Why do you like the game? And how do you know to do that?” he asked. “Well, if I turn this way, I fake out the game and make the barrel come down this ladder,” I replied.

After a few more questions he handed me his card. “Give me a call. I’d like to hear more about how you learn the game.” His card read “Ron Judy, Vice President of Marketing, Nintendo of America.”

From that day I played each game of Donkey Kong with more sense of purpose. And I began to pay more attention to other player’s turns too. Huddled around large wooden game cabinets, players shared their thoughts about games and how to beat them. Arcade games really were the original “social games.”

Staying in Contact

Donkey Kong Junior Arcade CabinetMy conversations with Ron were centered around how players learn games and my personal Donkey Kong strategies. This was Nintendo’s first big hit and they wanted to understand it’s magic. I presume he appreciated my insights, so our biweekly conversations continued.

Ron suggested I go to “Goldie’s” and play a new test game called Donkey Kong Junior. This soon became my hangout. I made several trips from Bellevue to Seattle’s Wallingford district and the popular University of Washington Sports Bar. Goldie’s had rows and rows of the newest arcade games and 1/4 lb burgers w/fries for $1.25. For the local games distributor Music Vend, it served as a barometer for which games players wanted to spend money on.

Unlike today’s games with “hold your hand” tutorials, classic games had learning curves that were essential to the game design. Learning a game, or “figuring it out” was part of the fun. It’s a way to understand how time and practice leads towards proficiency. Learning curves were labeled either “low” or “steep.” A player’s first few quarters were generally feeble attempts while first learning the game’s controls, mechanics and timing patterns.

Donkey Kong Junior had a steeper learning curve, and for other reasons wasn’t as popular as it’s predecessor. For me, I needed to quickly master it and understand every nuance of the game. And so I did.

Back then, games were shorter in overall length. The stages repeated themselves, but the action moved faster and faster. “Ramping” the game difficulty was a technique to maximize income, control play time and extend a games earnings “life”.

Mr. Arakawa

Mr A

“Mr. A”

Goldie's on 45th

Goldie’s on 45th

One day Ron told me the company president would be visiting Goldie’s that evening. I arrived early and camped on the game until a man in a suit introduced himself. Soft-spoken and with a wide smile he said, “My name is Minoru Arakawa, President of Nintendo.”

He wanted to watch me play, so I went about my business. “You’re really good” he said. “Please come to our factory tomorrow and show the company how you play the game.” Needless to say, I was excited as could be for my meeting the next day.

My Interview

I arrived early for my 2:00 pm appointment. In 1982, Nintendo of America then occupied a warehouse in Tukwila, not too far from the Southcenter Shopping Mall. It was leased from a man with the name, Mario Segale.

I was escorted to the warehouse where a Donkey Kong Junior game was waiting for me. Mr. Arakawa watched and smiled, where on a gaming stool I zipped through level after level. I described key points of play along the way. Before long the whole company was out there watching me. Back then there wasn’t more than fifteen employees, including manufacturing temps.

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6 Responses to Nintendo: My First Video Game Job

  1. ArchiveLover says:

    What a great story – compelling and moving. It truly is wonderful to see how synchronicity leads you in a direction that you’ve come to love and enjoy. Seems things were much simpler then.

    I’m curious on how today’s games compare in terms of their learning curve – guessing is that the entry level probably isn’t too hard in order to engage the player. But where does one strike a balance between making a game challenging and yet accessible initially?

    • Jerry Momoda says:

      First of all, thank you and I apologize for the delay. I missed your comments.

      Great question. Most games today have more gentle learning curves. With the F2P model, there’s evidence that higher retention rates lead to higher conversion rates.

      I feel all games must initially be easy and accessible to everyone – whether for a casual or core gamer. From this point challenge and designs diverge, based on genre and business model.

      Thanks for reading and leaving comments!

  2. […] research has yielded a (very) few additional pictures of the game, with one of the best being from Jerry Momoda’s blog post ‘Nintendo: My First Video Game Job’.  It’s an excellent article detailing his role at Nintendo of America, and you can see […]

  3. […] research has yielded a (very) few additional pictures of the game, with one of the best being from Jerry Momoda’s blog post ‘Nintendo: My First Video Game Job’.  It’s an excellent article detailing his role at Nintendo of America, and you can see […]

  4. What an absolutely amazing story. I’m blown away by that picture of “Knock Out.” I never knew Punch Out had an alternate name. I’m a huge fan of that series of arcade games and have gone sofar as to create a custom set-up that includes Punch-Out, Super Punch-Out and Arm Wrestling, all playable on original hardware.

    This is a very obscure question, but were there ever early versions of these games that would be changed prior to the final releases? Specifically, a few folks in the arcade collecting community have mentioned an early version of Super Punch-Out in which Super Macho Man was listed as hailing from “Venice Beach” – Of course in mine today and all others, he is listed as simply from “U.S.A.” They recall some gameplaying differences between this version and the actual release as well.

    At any rate. Thank you for sharing your experience with these now “classics.”

    • Jerry Momoda says:

      Your question is not obscure at all. All Nintendo arcade games had versions during development that altered gameplay. The first version(s) were intended for conceptual and playability feedback, while later version(s) incorporated test findings. English text and game instructions changed as well.

      Regarding Super Punch-Out, my fuzzy recollection recalls Super Macho Man being from Venice Beach. Strategic testing included our distributors and key arcade locations across the country for marketing purposes. Findings during testing resulted in gameplay and tuning modifications.

      Arcade games included a bank of dip switches that incorporated the ability to change game difficulty. This made a game easier or harder for players. In effect, it controlled average playtimes to maximize earnings. Better operators optimized demand and game difficulty. What may have been perceived as “gameplay differences” may have simply been difficulty changes. That said, it wasn’t uncommon to find different versions in the field. We would send distributors the latest production versions, but we couldn’t guarantee all games were updated.

      Thanks for your interest and being a fan.

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